December 06, 2022

Saudi Arabia: To go or not to go?

Friend of Traveloscopy, the talented Tim Johnson from Canada, wrestled with his motivation to visit Saudi Arabia

So, I just returned from more than a week in Saudi Arabia. It was strange and fascinating to visit a country that was completely closed to tourists until just a couple years ago. And one that’s very much in transition. Pouring resources into its tourism infrastructure (allotting $1 trillion over the next decade). And moving toward modernity with Vision 2030.

Given the country’s human rights record, I struggled with the decision of whether to go. The primary reason for my visit: the WTTC Global Summit. Over three days in Riyadh, I met personally with executives and officials from the tourism industry around the world, including one of the top-ranking tourism officials for the United States, the recent former CEO and chairman of Carnival Corp, the CEO of Virtuoso, and others. Speakers included former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former British PM Theresa May, and panels were moderated by CNN’s Richard Quest (one of my favourites).

I always feel that engagement is better than isolation, and the thing about travel is this: without fail, it challenges your preconceptions. Saudi was so different than I’d pictured it, whether we’re talking about day-to-day interactions between men and women, or the tempo of public life, from the souk to the (many) new shopping malls. More to come, but here are a few photos from my travels in the Red Sea port city, Jeddah, and the capital, Riyadh.


A few photos from around Riyadh, old and new—souk and shops and so many new shopping malls. A sprawling city of some seven million that feels like it’s still being built, because it is—construction cranes and bulldozers everywhere. Modern art galleries, and markets making iqal for traditional headdresses from camel’s hair. The call to prayer ringing out over the beginnings of a “giga project.” A place transforming by the moment. Strange and fascinating. What will Saudi’s capital look like in five years? Ten? Will be interesting.

Jeddah’s Old Town, where construction projects are everywhere—they’re fixing everything up, and it will look a lot more renovated in a couple of years. One of my favourite moments on the trip happened here. Like in many Middle Eastern countries, Saudis stay up late. It’s routine for people to get together at midnight and hang out till three or four in the morning. After walking around empty streets in the baking sun all afternoon, things got busy when the sun went down, and the lights came up. Shops opened. The labyrinth of lanes filled with locals. Squares teemed with life. Gave a little glimpse of life for centuries in this Red Sea port city. 

All photos and text (c) Tim Johnson

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